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Q&A with Lisa Ko, author of National Book Award finalist The Leavers

by on January 01, 2018 11:03 AM

On January 29, Schlow Centre Region Library in State College will host an event with novelist Lisa Ko, author of The Leavers. Published in May 2017, Ko’s debut novel has won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction as well as being named a finalist for National Book Award for Fiction.

Ko wrote The Leavers after reading about immigrant women and children who were separated on arrival. She explains her “obsession,” as she calls it, over these stories in her essay titled A Better Life.

Ko shares with Town&Gown some of her thoughts on touring to talk about her book, why she wrote The Leavers, and what being a writer is like.

T&G: Can you explain where you found your inspiration to write The Leavers?

Ko: I’m always very interested about the story within the story – especially when I read news articles, so I was really interested in what was not being said in those articles about xenophobic immigration policies and, kind of, how it seemed that the U.S. courts and U.S. government were … valuing certain people as parents over others – as in the middle class mainly-white American families that were granted custody of these children versus their birth parents. I think as somebody who’s very interested in the news and the narratives around current events, as well as somebody who’s the child of immigrants herself, that kind of sparked my interest and made me pay attention to those stories.

T&G: The Leavers isn’t exactly like the stories of immigrants having to give up their children, but about a child who is adopted and deals with the loss of the culture he grew up in. What caused that new focus?

Ko: Well, the stories are always about both the parents and the children. Now, there were news stories about parents who were separated from their children, but it seemed to me that the children were missing from the stories themselves, to perhaps be interviewed, so their absence kind of made them more significant to me. I kept thinking about what it was like for them to grow up in these homes with their adopted parents and communities who were really different from the communities and home they had grown up in, and knowing that their parents wanted to keep them.

I started writing The Leavers from the point of view of Polly, the mother, the immigrant, but I kept thinking about her son who she was separated from and over time his story was kind of begging to be told, so I listened to that and started writing from his perspective as well.

T&G: What are some struggles of writing a novel like The Leavers?

Ko: You know, I think as a first-time novelist, I think a lot of it was trying to figure out how to write a novel in the first place. As much as I wish that was a straightforward and relatively brief process, there’s really no way around it beyond just having to try writing a number of drafts and delete them and figure out exactly what the story was that I wanted to tell and how to tell it.

I think just balancing the work that I had to do with the writing, with having to do a good deal of research about topics that weren’t my own experiences that I wanted to write about, and then balancing that with having to work a regular job to pay the bills and other kinds of regular everyday life things.

T&G: What were some of your favorite parts of writing your novel?

Ko: I really liked doing research. I think for a lot of writers not only do you get to read and learn and talk to people about a topic that interests you, you get to put off writing for a while (laughs). So that can be enjoyable for those reasons.

So yeah, I did conduct a lot of research for the book, and that included traveling – not only to China but also to places in New York City for the neighborhoods that my characters lived. I ended up identifying exactly where my characters lived in the book down to the house number and the street just so I could visualize it more in my mind.

T&G: Do you have any advice for fans that might be interested in writing?

Ko: I guess that something that was really important to me to remember while I was writing this was to just not give up. I think that writing and publishing is full of rejection and it can feel really isolating, but to really remember why you’re doing it and to keep putting in the work, and also to seek out a writing community to support you as well. It can feel very isolating without that.

T&G: What are some of the most interesting things about doing these book talks around the country?

Ko: I think that writing and publishing are two such different processes. When you’re in the writing, especially as a first-time novelist, so much of it belongs to you and then you publish it and share your work with the world.

I’ve just really appreciated and loved hearing from different readers and how they see and interpret the book. People have such different opinions at different readings, and I just find it fascinating and fulfilling as well.

Lisa Ko will speak in the Downsbrough Community Room at Schlow Centre Region Library in State College from 6:30 to 8 p.m. January 29. Book sales and signing will follow.





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